Brexit Institute News

The New Dutch Government’s EU Policy: From UK Lite to Germany Lite?

Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht University)

After a record 271 days of negotiations a new Dutch coalition government took office on Monday 10 January. Although, is it really new? The same four parties that formed the previous government – Christian-Democratic CDA, Christian CU, Social-Liberal D66 and Conservative-Liberal VVD – are also in the new government. Yet, it does come with many new faces and plans. This includes what is at first sight a rather different approach towards the EU.

In the recent past the Netherlands has become known as a reluctant EU member, particularly following ‘Black Monday’ in 1991, when an ambitious Dutch blueprint for a federal Europe was rejected, and the Dutch ‘No’ to the Constitutional Treaty in 2005, partly due to increased dissatisfaction with the pace and extent of European integration. Whether the Dutch ever were passionate believers in European integration before that time, may be questioned. But the country having become known as a member of the ‘New Hanseatic League’ and one of the ‘Frugal Four’ (for an insightful study, see here), it seemed almost like it had become a UK lite, stepping into the gap that occurred after Brexit to become perhaps the most Eurosceptic member of the EU.

It therefore may come as a surprise that the new coalition agreement reads that “The Netherlands will play a leading role in making the EU more effective, economically stronger, greener and more secure.” But there’s more.

  • The words ‘strategic autonomy’ are highlighted to argue for encouraging “innovation and smart [EU] industrial policy”. The Dutch have long been wary about this, fearing a more protectionist EU that wouldn’t align well by the usual emphasis on being an open, liberal economy. But geopolitical developments and the Covid pandemic have gradually led to a change in the Dutch position.
  • Strategic autonomy also applies to defence and foreign policy, something which the French in particular have been keen on pursuing. Here the coalition agreement suggests that unanimity could perhaps be abolished in some fields of foreign policy. Accompanying this is the option to explore a European Security Council, although what this would exactly entail remains unclear.
  • When it comes to financial and monetary policy, the coalition agreement also creates room for European taxes – although they will “in principle be collected nationally”. There even seems to be willingness to consider reforming the Stability and Growth Pact – although probably not along the lines recently suggested by Mario Draghi and Emmanuel Macron. But as long as Eurobonds are not called ‘Eurobonds’, who knows what is possible (think Corona recovery fund)?
  • Finally, whereas the previous government argued that the Conference on the Future of Europe should not lead to treaty changes, the new coalition agreement says that the treaty changes may be acceptable when in the country’s and the EU’s interest. One example concerns commitment to an improved Spitzenkandidaten system; this could be seen as quite a change in approach for PM Mark Rutte, who in 2019 said the EP elections weren’t that relevant.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding; these are words on paper and reality may be quite different. But, as Rem Korteweg of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael also noted in a recent Twitter thread, some of the wording of the Dutch coalition agreement is quite similar to that of the new German government. Unlike the German government, the Dutch are not calling for a federal EU. But with the French and the Germans now seeing eye-to-eye on a number of EU reforms, the similarity between the two coalition agreements suggests that the new Dutch government may have become a Germany lite that will no longer put a break on the further development of the EU.

Patrick Bijsmans is Associate Professor in Teaching & Learning European Studies at Maastricht University’s Department of Political Science. His research interests include the European public sphere, media and Euroscepticism, and EU democracy, but also issues related to teaching and learning in European Studies.

The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author(s) and not necessarily that of the Brexit Institute Blog.

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